Israel is waking up to the growing threat of the soft war being waged against it internationally. Jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron’s apparent cancellation of his upcoming Tel Aviv performance is just the latest outcome of the escalating campaign to promote a cultural boycott of Israel. The April 28th assault on Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK as she completed a university lecture is another reminder that the soft war can quickly turn hard.
Those leading the soft war have adopted a number of tactics, including legal actions against Israeli officials abroad, the delegitimization of Israel as the world’s prime violator of human rights, and determined efforts to silence pro-Israel speakers. Equating their cause with the struggle against Apartheid South Africa, they have made the promotion of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel a centerpiece of their campaign.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seems to have been one of the first among the region’s political leaders to recognize and appreciate these developments. His two-year plan for unilaterally building a Palestinian state is based on the assumption that successful Palestinian institution-building will help create an international climate in which Israel is forced to acquiescence to key Palestinian demands.
The wager is that growing international pressure on Israel will be a more effective catalyst for Israeli concessions than either violent resistance or difficult negotiations. Time, he feels, is on his side.
To date, the success of the BDS movement has been limited. Despite the repeated calls by powerful NGOs such as Amnesty International to halt the sale of military equipment to Israel, no country has agreed to do so. Even the UK, which created a storm last summer when it revoked several weapons export licenses to Israel, insisted strongly that this did not constitute any kind of embargo.
Notwithstanding the numerous attempts to adopt divestment resolutions on campuses all over the US and Europe, very few such resolutions have been passed, let alone implemented.
However, the danger to Israel lies in the potential “snowball effect” of these campaigns. In many ways, the number of campaigns which achieve their goal is less important than the perception that the movement as a whole is gaining ground. This perception generates legitimacy for the soft war, entices others to jump on the bandwagon and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take wind out of BDS movement
Realizing the importance of creating this perception, the 2010 website of Israel Apartheid Week gushed, “IAW 2010 takes place following a year of incredible successes for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on the global level.” Toronto’s IAW’s events included a panel entitled, “Five Years Since the BDS Call- Celebrating Our Success.”
It is essential then that the government bodies charged with devising Israel’s strategy in this soft war dedicate significant resources to taking the wind out of the BDS movement. There is little chance that any argument will convince the hard-core supporters of BDS that it is wrong to single out Israel. The perception, however, that the movement is succeeding must be countered.
In response to headlines about pension funds’ divestment decisions, Israel must pursue, and more importantly publicize, increased investments and new commercial ties with other countries. Performing artists bombarded by an Internet campaign asking that they cancel their performance must be contacted and given Israel’s side of the story.
There are many other steps Israel can and should take to counter this assault. In parallel to rebranding efforts that emphasize Israel’s scientific and cultural accomplishments, the most difficult questions must be faced head on. On university campuses, stories about Israel’s contributions to text messaging or Indie rock seem hollow beside a picture of a checkpoint.
The choir must be preached to. Many young people, who in the past would have been willing to take a stand for Israel, have been influenced by slanted media coverage and the scathing reports from groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Publicizing the numerous elementary factual and legal errors in these reports would be a first step.
The geographic focus of Israel’s efforts must broaden significantly. While the majority of attention has traditionally been devoted to the US, Israel Apartheid Week 2010 took place in 13 Canadian and 12 European cities, as well as 10 in the US.
The point that must be internalized is that the soft war constitutes not simply a nuisance or even an economic threat. It is a process that could play a major role in shaping the future status quo between Israel and the Palestinians. That status quo would be one imposed from the outside, and would not necessarily take Israel’s interests into account.
The Palestinian leadership has recognized the far-reaching implications of this changing environment. It is time the Israeli leadership did as well.